Is Lorne Michaels Who We Think He Is?

I watched Saturday Night Live’s latest behind-the-scenes special, this one called “Saturday Night Live Backstage.” Ostensibly, it was supposed to be about what it’s like to put together a show like SNL – working in a small space, putting sets together in two minutes, and so on – but instead it ended up just another straightforward SNL history lesson.

It’s disappointing because the actual magic of seeing how the crew puts on a show like that would be a fascinating documentary to watch. I’d like to see the late night writing sessions, watch the pitch meeting, see the host interact with the cast members, follow sketches as they go through re-writes, see the new cast members fight for air time and learn the ropes, watch Lorne Michaels cut things at the last minute, and so on. I’ve certainly seen enough of the standard retrospective talking-heads TV special, but that’s what we got this past week anyway. Worse, this special seemed to be culled almost exclusively from leftover – and sometimes reused – interviews from those specials, including yet another rundown of how Norm MacDonald was fired from "Update" midseason (this one blamed the O.J. Simpson jokes, which is a sort of revisionist history so clearly inaccurate that the viewer should feel insulted).

But amidst the endless back-patting of “Backstage,” there was an extended section where they interviewed cast members who had failed to make a mark during their runs on the show, but had gone on to bigger things elsewhere. They were all gracious about their failures – I suppose becoming fabulously successful and wealthy later will do that to you – but there were so many of them. It made me wonder if maybe it wasn’t just an example of the stars themselves failing.

In a show of SNL’s size, it’s perfectly understandable that a few talents would squeeze through the cracks. But look at the list of cast members who failed at SNL but became much more successful outside the show: Robert Downey, Jr., Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Joan Cusack, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Sarah Silverman, Damon Wayans, Ben Stiller, Chris Elliot, Janeane Garofalo, David Koechner, Rob Riggle, Paul Shaffer, Anthony Michael Hall. And that’s ignoring the fates of the writers who failed on the show but succeeded elsewhere, like Larry David and Conan O'Brien. You can make a valid excuse for the lack of success any of those, but when you see them all together, it makes you wonder.

In the midst of “Backstage,” frequent host Alec Baldwin referred to Michaels as “Darwinian.” SNL creates a place where “only the strong survive,” he noted.  In many ways, that’s a healthy attitude for a comedy show. Something’s either funny or it’s not, it either makes it on air or it doesn’t, and you have to adjust to that. But look again at that list of cast members. Doesn’t it seem likely that with that group, if they had created an atmosphere where these people could have succeeded, the show would have been much better off during those terrible, unfunny years?

And there have been a great many unfunny years. Of course, our memories betray us. Everyone always complains about how the show is terrible now (whenever now is), and complain about how it was much better when _______ was on the show. But it usually wasn’t.  And there were long stretches where it was truly abysmal.

The show has developed a pattern where it flounders for a couple years, finds its footing for a short time once a cast gels, then begins to splinter as the writers and actors run certain characters into the ground. The cast disintegrates, new cast members come in, the show flounders again, then reasserts itself. But nobody remembers the bad years, other than the famous replacement cast of '80-'81 and '85-'86.

We remember the best of the Will Ferrell sketches (and Ferrell himself was just as good as everyone recalls), but most of the stuff on air during his run was the same sketch trotted out over and over.  The "Cheerleader" sketches, the horny couple that Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri played, Mary Katherine Gallagher… all had grown unbelievably stale by the end.

The mid-90’s were a disaster for SNL. Looking back now, it seems that a crew with Chris Rock/Chris Farley/Adam Sandler/David Spade/etc. must have worked. But it didn’t work – so much so that this article was written – and Sandler and Farley were both fired from the cast without much fanfare.

The 80’s were an unmitigated disaster, save for Eddie Murphy’s performances, until the Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman cast saved the show. And so on.

But we don’t remember any of that. All we remember is what we see on those SNL retrospectives that VH1 loops ad nauseum, until a whole decade of mediocre work is distilled down in our mind to three or four brilliant sketches. And Lorne Michaels knows that.

There’s a mystique to Michaels, the silent, deadpan “comedy genius” who turned a late-night variety show concept into a television institution.  There’s a reason why Matthew Perry’s character on “Studio 60” seemed patterned after Michaels. The respect for him seems to reach the level of idol worship.

Cast members – even the failed ones – are quick to absolve Lorne of all blame, explaining how they just “didn’t get it,” or they weren’t confident enough, or they made mistakes they couldn’t recover from. Lorne “fought for them” as long as he could. There’s a pantheon of reasons given of why their failures are self-inflicted.

But how much of Lorne’s story is talent and genius, and how much of it is luck? If SNL wasn’t as successful as it is, we wouldn’t be telling the same stories we are now. No one is in any hurry to anoint the creators of “Mad TV” or “In Living Color” comedic superheroes. The idea is laughable. But what’s the real difference between them and Michaels? Just a few share points a night.

I don’t mean to discount Michaels, whose legacy I appreciate as much as the next comedy nerd. But at some point, Lorne moved into kid-gloves territory, where every comment about him has to be framed with the understanding that Michaels is untouchable, because of all he’s done for comedy. But before we build that Hall of Fame plaque for him, maybe we should take another good look at the man’s batting average.

Because when the show's bad, we'll find a way to blame everyone else but him. But for the entire 35-year run of the show, they've had a lot of really bad shows - and only one constant presence there for almost all of it.